UTICA — The Mohawk Valley Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” is a little different every year.
The dancers change, and the choreography is tweaked to match their abilities.
But for more than two decades, the audience has known just who would be dressing up as Uncle Drosselmeier and giving Clara the nutcracker doll at the family’s Christmas Eve party.
David Cockrell has starred in the role since 1989, and his presence on the Stanley Center for the Arts’ stage each year is matched only by his character’s presence throughout the Nutcracker story.
“Uncle Drosselmeier provides continuity,” he said. “He gives the nutcracker to Clara in the beginning and ushers her through the rest of the ballet.”
“And the role has just grown over the years,” he added. “I haunt magic shops wherever I go, and if there’s a magic effect I can throw into the character, I do that.”
Delia Foley, founding artistic director of the Mohawk Valley Ballet, said Cockrell has brought the character’s personality forward. While Uncle Drosselmeier is often portrayed as mean, Cockrell’s version is a “very loving and caring and compassionate uncle.”
“Sometimes he wears an eye patch (in other productions),” she said. “Well, we don’t do that.”
When the Mohawk Valley Ballet stages “The Nutcracker” this week, it will be Cockrell’s 24th time donning a cape for the role, but also his last.
“It’s going be awful to see him go — he’s the mainstay of the performance,” Foley said. “We will miss him terribly, because he’s a great guy and he’s done wonderful things for the ballet company over the years.”
After the Saturday and Sunday productions, Cockrell is moving with his wife to Portland, Ore., to help care for their daughter Kerris’ newborn daughter.
“Oh, it’s been a fun run. I am going to miss it,” the 66-year-old Oneida resident said. “Every year is a little different. The girls have different personalities and different abilities — it’s a new experience every time.”
Kerris needs their help because she and her husband both work late hours as stagehands, a career that first piqued her interest when she danced in the Mohawk Valley Ballet’s Nutcracker productions. After rehearsals, she would stay late with her dad to help move sets.
Kerris was the one who, as a young ballet student, first encouraged her father to take a class from Foley.
“I was just providing taxi service to class, and one night she said, ‘They’re starting an adult class. I think you should take it,’” he said.
The class followed his daughter’s class at Foley’s school in Clark Mills, and Cockrell first told his daughter they couldn’t stay because she had homework to do. But as it turned out, she had brought it with her.
Page 2 of 2 - “After that first night of ballet class, I was really sore, but I felt great,” he said. “It takes a lot of effort to make it all look effortless.”
As Cockrell prepares for his last performances in Utica, he said he continues to be impressed by the young dancers who put in the time and effort to make the ballet look effortless every year.
He’ll miss working with them the most, he said.
“They’re an incredible bunch of kids,” he said. “It’s funny, you go to the studio for rehearsals and everyone has their hair in a bun, everyone is focused and concentrating so hard, and you kind of lose track of how old these kids are, until you see them in the mall and they’re acting their age.”
40 years of ballet
The Mohawk Valley Ballet is celebrating its 40th season this year. This year’s production of “The Nutcracker” is the company’s 38th, however. The show features more than 100 local dancers ranging in age from 3 to 66.
Delia Foley, the company’s founding artistic director, said she started the troupe to give the children in the community the chance to dance at a higher level.
“The children love it,” she said. “We’ve got second and third generations coming back.”